Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Mindset that Drinking Is Not Cool, Vodka Vomiting Is Not Cool, Crookery Is Not Cool

When I attended yeshiva high school, everyone kvetched about the school: kids kvetched about the teachers, the facility, the bathrooms, the color the walls were painted. It was in the culture to kvetch about the place -- even though we loved it so much. And then I went to college at Columbia University. Students at Columbia did not love that place as passionately as we loved our yeshiva high school. But no one kvetched at Columbia. (Yes, there were political riots -- but it was a different thing. You had to be there.) The thing is, those of us from yeshiva high school who attended Columbia at that time quickly saw that it is not cool to kvetch at Columbia. It was not cool to shoot spitballs at Columbia. You did not get popularity points for interrupting professors with wise cracks, as you did in high school. So there is great value in changing a milieu, changing the mindset of what is cool.

There are places where it is perceived by some that it is cool to be frummer than the next guy. Each guy in such a milieu wants to exhibit his chumrah. That is an environment -- maybe it is good, maybe not -- but in that environment, people proudly demonstrate their chumras.

The goal needs to be to create a nationwide mindset in the Torah-observant community that it is cool to be honest, and it is not cool to cheat. It is not cool to avoid paying state sales tax by paying in cash -- and, for the one who does so, he keeps it to himself out of a proper sense of shame, rather than telling people in shul how he does it and where he goes.

To create that mindset -- and it can be created, just as Columbia created a mindset that differed from yeshiva high school regarding what is cool to talk about -- there needs to be a nationwide concerted effort. It means shiurim and divrei Torah and sermons. It means hand-outs and circulars placed on shul seats. It means a concerted effort that denies honors to certain people and that starts to honor others.

These things are never easy. We all know that one reason that Dor HaMidbar did not enter Eretz Yisrael -- transcending the p'shat of the punishment for how almost all the men responded to the m'raglim -- is that they were not able to evolve the mindset of free people after a lifetime of slavery. Their children, experiencing freedom in their youth, could evolve that mindset. And so it goes.

In some places, people speak loshon horo, typically starting each sentence with: "I don’t think this is loshon horo, so I want you to know that . . ." It is like a culture. And then, in some places, people just do not speak loshon horo. Can you imagine going to a Yeshivat Chofetz Chaim and speaking loshon horo? Inconceivable -- because there is a mindset. It is not cool.

In some places, there are Kiddush Clubs. In other places, such things are inconceivable. Many Torah authorities have made an effort to send the word that Kiddush Clubs are not cool. That it is not cool to brag about what whiskey or malt scotch or whatever one drinks. One Young Israel rav here in Los Angeles took a powerful, powerful stand against Kiddush Clubs in his shul. Some people left his shul. His shul emerged better, stronger, and holier for his heroic leadership on that issue. His strength on this issue made him a role model for many other rabbonim.

In some places, it is cool to get so much vodka into one's body on Simchat Torah and on Purim that fellows actually expel that intake uncontrollably, publicly on streets. Even as they are being plied with more. And so the community arose with a campaign -- at least here in Los Angeles -- to teach people that is not cool. That it is not cool to vomit on the sidewalk in front of shul on Purim or Simchat Torah night. It is not cool to drink or to serve teens such alcohol or to let your teens get drunk. It had such an impact that the Los Angeles Times did a beautiful story on it, and it was a beautiful story that, in turn, gave impetus to other rabbis to lead on the subject.

These are hard things. Kiddush Clubs. Teen and Adult inebriation on Purim and Simchat Torah. Loshon Horo. Business dishonesty. In each case, it is about creating a new mindset -- putting circulars regularly on shul seats, having not just one or two strong rabbonim talking about the issue but having a national campaign that urges all rabbonim to speak about an issue. Creating an environment where it is not cool to cheat or to tell others.

And you know what? We still may fail because it takes only one Madoff -- only one -- to destroy a generation's efforts. So, if Ivan Boesky does not go to our shul, nor Madoff, nor the junk-bond guy, nor Marc Rich, nor the money-laundering crooks involved in that East Coast/West Coast scandal (including Chasidim, Israeli bankers, and the guy who was a West Coast Orthodox Union leader), nor the others -- we still lose. But at least we know we tried. And-- who knows? -- maybe in an environment with the right kind of mindset, maybe a Madoff would not get to be a Treasurer at Yeshiva University nor chairman of a school within YU. Who knows? But that takes a mindset-change, and maybe it takes a generation.

The Sea does not split until someone jumps in. We probably should try everything.

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